Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

His Majesty King Mob

“One thing is certain. King Mob never wanted to find themselves here, in the house rag of cultural consumption, let alone locked away in Tate’s permanent collection. But these posters and magazines are just detritus, the record of past struggles. In the present day, the real action is elsewhere.” So writes author Hari Kunzru in The Mob Who Shouldn’t Really Be Here, an article for the Tate Britain publication, TATEetc., on the subject of a minuscule collective of English radicals from the 1960s who took their name from the 1780 Gordon Riots of London. During that long-ago uprising, London’s Newgate Prison was destroyed by the rampaging multitudes, and left on its walls was a daub that credited the destruction to “His Majesty King Mob.”

Graphic by anonymous King Mob member

[ Front cover graphic from a King Mob anti-art diatribe, circa 1968. Anonymous. Courtesy Tate archive. A dancing skeleton holding a burning torch captioned "anarchy" and wearing a sash captioned "communism", unfurls a scroll labeled "Mob Law", upon which is written a message from King Mob encapsulating the group’s ideas regarding culture - "the commodity which helps sell all the others". ]

I need not recount the chronicles of King Mob as it reared its ugly little head during the turbulent 1960s, suffice it to say the rebel faction left its mark and Kunzru’s article recounts that history well enough, save for one bothersome fact. Kunzru wrote about the Mob as though it were a prehistoric fossil preserved in amber, when in fact some of its surviving cadre still publish hair-raising tirades designed to give elites apoplexy. But Kunzru was correct in noting that King Mob would have wanted absolutely nothing to do with a “cultural mausoleum” like the Tate, since the Mob was, and continues to be, opposed to art altogether - considering it “the commodity which helps sell all the others”. The question is not why King Mob railed against the grotesqueries of an “outrageous society” - but why Tate Britain thought it essential to include King Mob ephemera amongst its collection of Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins.

An archive of King Mob’s subversive printed materials has recently been acquired by Tate Britain, and several anti-art collage works by the King Mob collective are now included in the Tate Britain’s Collage Montage Assemblage exhibit which began at the museum in July, 2008. This is indeed a conundrum, especially in light of the Mob’s unambiguous views regarding art as expressed in a recent statement from them:

“A master of irony and word play, would Duchamp have savoured the irony of seeing his Urinal hailed as the most important single contribution to the evolution of modern art by cultural pundits? Unfortunately he would most likely have been flattered. The ‘Urinal’ is now Tate Modern’s altar piece surrounded by a culturally beatified host of imitators.

One wonders what effect a gesture like smashing the urinal would have in the media, on decrepit youth and the avant garde (rather arriere garde) of the cultural establishment, especially if accompanied by a coherent explanation. We are almost tempted, but the thought of the ensuing court case, accusations of cultural vandalism equivalent to the burning of the books, even a prison sentence and certainly a crippling fine for having destroyed a priceless work of art when the aim of the original piece was to debunk any such pretensions, is enough to deter anyone.”

I understand King Mob’s observation that Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ is nothing more than a urinal transformed into an “altar piece” by the Priests of Postmodernism, what I cannot understand is the Tate Britain embracing the Mob’s incendiary and volatile gesticulations as “art”. I suppose the Mob gets the last laugh by bringing some clarity to the situation when averring the following:

“Where anti-art as an essential part of a modern revolutionary critique was once proclaimed loudly, the simple realization that art is nothing but a consumer appendage or that popular culture is now inseparable from advertising in an utterly commoditized social life far more dire than in the late 1960s - has again been reaffirmed.”

An Art World Mesmerized by Bling

As the world burns and international financial institutions fall like so many dominoes, impulsive oligarchs and imprudent investment bankers continue to put their money into the overheated contemporary art “market.” At a two-day Sotheby’s London auction of works by postmodernist Damien Hirst, the artist made a whopping $169 million before the auction even closed. Among the masterpieces snatched-up; The Kingdom, a tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde ($17.2 million), and The Golden Calf, an embalmed calf with hooves and horns of 18-carat gold, also encased in a tank of formaldehyde ($18.6 million). Hirst, who did not attend the auction but monitored sales from his home, brashly stated: “I love art, and this proves I’m not alone and the future looks great for everyone.”

While it is easy to carp about the debauchery of the elite art world, it takes considerable effort to understand how the enjoyment of art has been substituted with the worship of celebrity artists and an effusive fawning over their ridiculously excessive prices. The esteemed art critic Robert Hughes said the following about Damien Hirst in an article published in the U.K. Guardian:

“Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free.

Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.

(…. ) The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerized by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.”

[ LEFT: Day of the Dead sugar skull from Mexico, cost - around two dollars. RIGHT: Damien Hirst’s platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds, cost - around $100.5 million. ]

Charles Thomson, co-founder of the international Stuckist movement of figurative realist artists, said this about Hirst and the Sotheby’s auction:

“The auction shows only that some people have more money than sense, and certainly more money than artistic insight. Hirst repeats ideas that are already in common currency, but merely makes them a larger size, gives them a pretentious title and puts them in an inappropriate context of art. If the same items were in a gift shop at the seaside, nobody would bother looking twice at them. It shows the triumph of marketing over substance, and operates on the same level as a craze in the school playground for Teletubbies or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The art world has historical precedents, such as the 1875 painting The Babylonian Marriage Market by auction record-breaking Victorian artist, Edwin Long, whose work fell to 10% of its previous value after his death and who is now forgotten. William-Adolphe Bouguereau was the must-have star of the 19th century French Salon. By the 1950s museums were giving his work away to get rid of it. Now he has become modestly collectible as representative of a certain affectation of the period, but his work has never regained its peak value or status. Hirst is fashionable, and fashion doesn’t last. Worse than that, it later looks ridiculous.

It is significant that collectors ahead of the game, such as Charles Saatchi and Helly Nahmad - both major fans in the past - have already offloaded their Hirsts. The art world is a pass-the-parcel game, and the last person holding the parcel is the loser, when everyone else decides they don’t want to play any more. Eventually some people are going to lose a lot of money. It’s the same blind money-for-nothing mentality that created the sub-prime lending disaster. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Never buy anything because it is expensive.’”

Sotheby’s Hirst auction is the ultimate spectacle to come from a certain layer in the art world that has, from top to bottom, completely lost its way. It is the end result of the philosophy best expressed in 1975 by Andy Warhol, who wrote - “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” The Golden Calf indeed.

The Shallow Jake and Dinos Chapman

There is seemingly no end to the superficiality of today’s postmodern art and the cravenness of those fame seekers who create it. In 2003 BritArt movement superstars Jake and Dinos Chapman purchased a suite of Goya’s celebrated antiwar etchings, Disasters of War, and in a gesture supposedly meant to lay bare the inadequacy of art as protest, defaced the set of 80 prints by drawing cartoon faces of clowns and puppies on them. At the time art critic Robert Hughes said the works of Goya “will obviously survive these twerps, whose names will be forgotten a few years from now.” That was five years ago and sorry to say, we are still hearing about the Chapmans and their ilk. I’m loathe to mention them at all, save for the fact that they unfortunately represent a large portion of today’s art world - which needs to be emphatically criticized at every opportunity.

[ Landscape painting by Adolf Hitler - altered by Jake and Dinos Chapman. ]

The Chapmans have once again placed themselves in the spotlight with their latest publicity stunt, the despoilment of thirteen actual watercolor paintings by Adolf Hitler, upon which they painted smiley faces, rainbows, psychedelic flowers and stars. Calling the suite of defaced artworks, If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be, Jake Chapman was quoted in The Guardian as having said, “If hell exists and Hitler is there, I think he is turning in his grave.” An infantile razz aimed at a long dead and despised mass-murderer hardly makes for insightful and profound art, let alone a passable joke.

Rather than a keen examination into the forces behind the rise of fascism, the Chapmans give us slapstick. Instead of investigating the links between the totalitarianism of the past and the despotism of today, the Chapmans deliver a gesture akin to the 1942 satirical recording by Spike Jones & the City Slickers, Der Fuehrer’s Face. At least the effort of Spike Jones and company had some relevancy in its day, while still being recognized for what it was - a trifling lowbrow joke. But postmodernism has obliterated the idea of high art and replaced it with the vulgarities of lowbrow. We are all cretins now. Weight, consequence, and meaning have little to do with the works of the Chapmans and their postmodernist cohorts, who think it is a clever thing to erase and otherwise rewrite history. As objets d’art Hitler’s paintings have little worth, but as historical artifacts they are a window into a dark past that we can not afford to trivialize or forget.

Artist Charles Tomson, co-founder of The Stuckist/Remodernist art movement and an implacable foe of postmodernism, offers us further elucidation regarding the Chapman/Hitler controversy in an article he wrote for CounterPunch.

Witless Whitney Wasteland

The annual Whitney Biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art is thought of by some as an important but frequently contentious survey of contemporary American art; unveiling the latest trends and directions in the U.S. art scene as well as plumbing the zeitgeist of the nation. If you accept that premise then you might also conclude that the country and its art are in very poor shape indeed.

Howard Halle of Time Out New York said the art on display at the 2008 Whitney Biennial “barely rises above the level of graduate school.” Mario Naves of The Observer brusquely dismissed the exhibit as the “blandest biennial in memory”, where “the easy gratifications of spectacle have replaced the rigors of engagement” and where “racial politics are no more meaningful than dressing in Viking drag.” Ariella Budick of Newsday wrote a representative but altogether stinging assessment of the exhibit titled, Whitney Biennial is a wasteland, an acerbic review that not only describes the biennial, but the overall state of much of today’s art:

“The impending recession haunts us; the gradual warming of the earth terrifies us; the never-ending war in Iraq drains our strength and our emotional resources. And yet the art market soars blithely upward, impervious to crises at home and abroad. The Whitney is not in the business of selling art, but this Biennial shows that it’s nevertheless caught up in the market’s bizarre hysteria, swooning over mediocrity and prodigally handing out prestige. (….) The real elephant in the room is the impotence of art. This Biennial is filled with wan political statements, reluctant commodities, unpersuasively subversive gestures and acts of broken narcissism. There are not one but two pieces involving bits of mirror fastened to plywood frames - both of them incomplete reflections, hovering in midair. The entire exhibit seems gripped by awkwardness and a lack of conviction in art’s ability to change lives, refract the world or even just make money.”

Without voluminous wall texts and over intellectualized exhibit catalog entries, William Cordova’s installation, The House that Frank Lloyd Wright built 4 Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, is as cryptic and incomprehensible as any other postmodern mediocrity in the exhibit. A sprawling maze of wood beams that looks like a building under construction, Cordova’s work purportedly concerns the “strangeness of our own detritus and the too-often repressed histories they conceal.” Little is mentioned of the historical figures the installation is named after, and museum goers are simply left to traipse about the faux construction site to wonder who Fred Hampton and Mark Clark might have been.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, art critics and intellectual circles redefined high art as aloof, nonrepresentational, inward looking, and unconcerned with narrative or social criticism - a judgment that represented the heedless cutting of the artist’s vocal chords. Realism in art was circumscribed as kitsch, lowbrow, and banal. The great incongruity of 21st century postmodernist art is that it has come to extol and embody those very things - with the 2008 Whitney Biennial exemplifying this contradiction.

The Unveiling of Robert Scull

There are few independent observers of the art world who have not commented on the role money has played in shaping and distorting the arts in recent years. That reality was probably best expressed - inadvertently - by Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art and chief auctioneer, who in 2006 said, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” How did the contemporary art world become so single-mindedly venal and dim-witted? When did this downward spiral begin? Perhaps the following will shed some light on the matter.

The other day I pulled an art book from off my dusty book shelf, and opened it to thumb through its pages. To my surprise I found a long forgotten newspaper clipping I had slipped into the book in 1973. Folded and yellowed, the cutting was titled, Art Sale Brings Over $2 Million - it was a Reuters news report that recounted an event that shook the art world. As I read the crumbling newsprint a flood of memories came to me, and I suddenly remembered the moment I became aware of money as an overbearing influence on contemporary art.

I was raised in the midst of the Pop art boom of early 1960s Los Angeles. As a twelve year old I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966 to see Back Seat Dodge, the outrageously controversial installation by Pop extraordinaire, Edward Kienholz (who by the way is still a favorite artist of mine). By 1970 I was questioning Pop and the art world in general, it was after all the late 60s, when young rebels asked difficult questions.

My disenchantment with the art establishment came in 1973 when New York taxi company mogul Robert Scull auctioned off a portion of his Pop art collection at Sotheby’s New York. The notorious Scull auction was a milestone event for contemporary art; it heralded the commercial success of Pop, but more importantly, it affirmed the role big money would have in shaping and dominating the art world in the later 20th century and beyond.

The Scull auction and the events surrounding it were captured on film in an amazing and rarely shown 1974 documentary titled, America’s Pop Collector: Robert C. Scull - Contemporary Art at Auction, created by filmmakers John Schott and E.J. Vaughn. That same year the New York Times reviewed the film, saying: “You may be glad that you don’t paint, sculpture, own, sell, or buy contemporary art - which appears to addle many who come in contact with it.” While the modern art critic and historian, Barbara Rose, wrote a scathing report on the Scull auction for New York Magazine, titled, Profit Without Honor, I first heard about the controversial auction by word of mouth, as it was a hot topic in artistic circles.

Scull had purchased early works from Pop artists who could barely make a living at the time, building a huge collection in the process. He bought a bronze cast of two Ballantine ale cans by Jasper Johns for $960 - and sold them at auction for $90,000. He bought a painting from Robert Rauschenberg for $2,500 - and sold it for $90,000. He bought a painting of flowers by Andy Warhol for $2,500 - and sold it for $135,000. Overall, fifty pieces sold at the auction, bringing in $2,242,900, which was an astronomical sum in those days, and the increased value went - not to the artists - but to Scull.

Still from the movie, "America’s Pop Collector: Robert C. Scull: Contemporary Art at Auction". John Schott and E.J. Vaughn. 1974. The still shows Robert Scull standing in front of his portrait, painted by Alfred Leslie.

Still from the movie, "America’s Pop Collector: Robert C. Scull: Contemporary Art at Auction". John Schott and E.J. Vaughn. 1974. The still shows Robert Scull standing in front of his portrait, painted by Alfred Leslie.

In Schott and Vaughn’s documentary Scull remarked onscreen, “Acquisition is involvement, and in art - it’s probably the most exciting kind of involvement”, which was a shocking statement for the period, but one which wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in today’s money besotted art world.

After the auction an outraged Rauschenberg took a swing at Scull, hollering, “I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit!” But taken as a whole, the raise in prices increased the marketability of Pop artists - who began to grow quite wealthy.

When Sotheby’s New York first announced the auction, many people were furious with Scull’s profiteering and the auction house’s blatant exploitation of artists.

Remarkably, local artists and activists organized themselves to protest outside the entrance of Sotheby’s - greeting collectors with chants, banners, and picket signs that poured scorn on the notion of art being only for the privileged few.

Schott and Vaughn’s film shows demonstrators using their bodies to block the entrance to Sotheby’s. One protesting group was the Taxi Rank-and-File Coalition, a group of New York Taxi drivers who wrote and acted in a street theater performance given outside the entrance of Sotheby’s.

Calling their play The Unveiling of Robert Scull, the cabbies handed out a mockish self-published program guide where they made their primary demand - “Every taxi a museum.” Notes on the back of the flyer read in part:

“So here we are, workers and artists, reminding all these fine folk gathered here just where all the things they’ve got are coming from. The needs of the people and the flourishing creativity of the human spirit can no longer be subservient to the insatiable greed and egomania of the rich.”

What’s worth remembering about the Scull auction, is not so much that it prefigured an era where high finance became a determining, if not crippling factor in the arts, but that artists and art lovers still possessed the will to resist the intrusion of big money. If that spirit could only be rekindled today, it would go a long way in guaranteeing that money does not turn out to be the last word in giving ultimate meaning and validity to art.

Two Very Different Diamond Rings

Two very different diamond rings are the focus of artworks currently being discussed in the art world and beyond - Blue Diamond, a sculpture by postmodernist Jeff Koons, and Marine Wedding, a photograph by Nina Berman. The artworks are poles apart, but each illustrates in its own way the crisis American society has fallen into. The works also exemplify the contrasting directions American art is taking in the face of that crisis.

Blue Diamond is a giant, highly polished stainless steel sculpture that’s nearly eight feet tall and more than seven feet wide. The replica jewel will be sold Nov. 13 at Christie’s auction of postwar and contemporary art, and it’s expected to sell for as high as $12 million. Christie’s described the work as “an almost comic-strip archetype, a stereotype, a cliché that has burst into monumental existence in our world, speaking of wealth and luxury and awe in an open, sincere and deliberately uncritical manner.” In other words, Blue Diamond is a crass celebration of ostentatious wealth that carries the moral authority and profundity of a Hallmark greeting card.

Sculpture by Jeff Koons

[ Blue Diamond - Sculpture by Jeff Koons. The moral authority and profundity of a Hallmark greeting card. Photo credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. ]

In contrast to the vapid kitsch offered by Koons, photographer Nina Berman puts forward a humanist vision that is at once heartrending and busting with empathy. In her photo, Marine Wedding, a diamond wedding ring is obscured by a beautiful bridal bouquet - and an unsettling vision of America’s war in Iraq. In 2004, Marine Corps reservist Ty Ziegal was trapped in a burning truck after it came under attack by Iraqi guerillas, that he survived was a miracle, but 19 rounds of reconstructive surgery could not restore the face stolen by war. The wedding day portrait of Renee Kline, 21, and Ty Ziegal, 24, has launched an eternal discussion on the meaning of love, devotion, sacrifice and war - whereas the only conversation surrounding the Koons sculpture has to do with how much it will sell for. You can view Berman’s photo on the New York Times website.

It is remarkable that Nina Berman’s photograph and Jeff Koons’ sculpture exist in the same time frame, and that they are both meant to reflect the current state of American society. Berman’s Marine Wedding does so with weighty philosophical insight, while Koons’ Blue Diamond can’t even muster enough relevance to be called inconsequential.

Berman’s photo comes from a larger body of work she calls, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, which are compassionate studies of wounded Iraq war vets. Marine Wedding stands alone as a jarring image, with the great majority of images from Berman’s series being quite tame and contemplative by comparison. But Purple Hearts by no means represents the totality of Berman’s vision, and an overview of her growing body of work reveals an artist sincerely pursuing an honest examination of “the American Way of Life.” By comparison, even a cursory review of Koons’ oeuvre exposes an artist with all the sophistication of a corn dog.

UPDATE: Ty Ziegal died on Dec. 26, 2012 at the age of 30.

Bizarro World & its Art Critics

Postmodern art is ostensibly challenging and aggressively cerebral, but I find it mostly hollow, complacent and ultimately tied to centers of power. I know many disagree with me, and this antagonism between camps was effusively illustrated in a Guardian article titled, Best of British?, in which art critic Jonathan Jones used his special brand of seething anti-populist rhetoric to heap scorn upon graffiti artist Banksy, and by extension, all those who oppose the elite postmodernist art world:

“(….) this isn’t about talent or lack of talent. One of Banksy’s most irritating attributes is his conservatism, as an artist who seems proud of the fact that he ‘draws’, rather than just making ‘concepts’. He appeals to people who hate the Turner prize. It’s art for people who think that artists are charlatans. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great British commonsense antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand.”

Obviously what so disturbs Mr. Jones is the visage of an artist who even now, does not abandon the conviction that drawing is at the core of art. Even a threat posed by an anonymous graffiti artist must be quarantined and purged. Not satisfied with simply attacking drawing as an example of an archaic “conservatism”, Jones resorts to bullying readers into supporting his postmodernist position. Sneering about the crude and unsophisticated rabble turning their backs upon his vaunted conceptualists is clearly meant to manipulate readers - after all, who wants to be seen as an unrefined simpleton? The poisonous contempt displayed by Jones for “what most people think” about contemporary art reveals an autocratic mindset that is dead set against pluralism. One gets the feeling that if Rembrandt were alive today, Jones would rebuke him for his fine draftsmanship - or at least lecture the old master on the need to create paintings filled with unattractive and ironic subject matter.

Mr. Jones lives on Bizarro World, a topsy turvy cube-shaped planet where individuals who can neither paint nor draw are considered remarkable artists. At the close of his article, Jones praises conceptualist Damian Hirst as a suitable artist to go into raptures over, yet there is no clearer example of hucksterism to be found than in the works of that unrivaled leader of the postmodernist art movement. At the same time Jones credits Banksy and his admirers for the demise of art!

“Perhaps the rise of Banksy is the fall of Art - that is, the waning of art as the force it has been in recent culture. A decade ago, the art of the Damien Hirst generation pushed itself into anyone’s view of what was happening in Britain. Probably the rise of Banksy means that moment is coming to an end; people care more about other things. (….) The reason to admire Damien Hirst is that he makes art as if art mattered. In Banksy, the philistines are getting their revenge.”

And there we have it. To Jones the fall of art came not with the animals pickled in formaldehyde brought to us by Damian Hirst, no, the fall came because some miscreant street graffiti artist simply wouldn’t stop drawing realistically. As a postmodern art world gatekeeper, Jones will continue to peddle this cock-and-bull story - but is anyone reading this actually prepared to tell me with a straight face that he’s correct? That more people might prefer the realistic stencil art of an insolent street artist like Banksy over the stuck-up narcissistic crap generated by Hirst and his peers, seems to strike panic into the likes of Jones, whose only reading of the situation is that people are “philistines.”

Media hoopla has crowned Damian Hirst “the world’s most expensive living artist” - because his works now sell for the highest bids at auction houses. In June of 2007, Sotheby’s sold a Hirst designed pill cabinet for $19.2 million to an anonymous buyer. Supposedly an allegory on the four seasons, the 10-foot wide steel cabinet is titled Lullaby Spring, and its shelves hold 6,136 hand painted pills. Goodness knows what the unnamed purchaser intends to do with the pricey pill cabinet, perhaps donate it to a hospital? But it’s the most recent artwork from the artist’s studio, a diamond encrusted skull titled For the Love of God, that lays bare the soulless, hyper-commercialist nature of postmodern art for all to see. The skull premiered at Hirst’s recent “Beyond Belief” solo show at London’s White Cube gallery, an exhibit by the way, that made $250 million in sales during its five week run - excluding sale of the skull, which is rumored to still be under negotiation.

Naturally Jonathan Jones waxes poetic in his adoration of Hirst’s latest, and he asks fawningly, “What is being born, exactly? It might be the art of the 21st century.” But if Hirst’s art matters… then it can only be of importance to Billionaires. Based on a platinum casting of an 18th century human skull found in a taxidermy shop, For the Love of God is covered with over 8,000 diamonds and its asking price is $100.5 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever created. Hirst and his dealer, Jay Jopling, put up the $24 million required to create the artwork, and then contracted jewelers Bentley & Skinner to inlay the precious stones. In fact, so many diamonds were used in the project that Hirst brags their “price went up as we bought them.” Bentley & Skinner profess their work is the largest diamond piece created since the Crown Jewels of the British monarchy.

Ever feel like you've been cheated?

[ For the love of God - Damien Hirst 2007. Life-sized platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds. The preferred art of the corporatocracy. ]

There’s no doubt Hirst will make a fortune by selling For the Love of God to some oligarch - and that’s the one and only concept behind the scheming of the world’s most famous conceptualist. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking such a business deal has anything to do with art or the uplift of humanity. Simply put, Hirst’s works are the preferred art of the corporatocracy. Hirst insists his diamond covered skull is a statement about “the maximum celebration you could make against death,” but to those of us who don’t reside on Bizarro World, words from one of Banksy’s stenciled rats provide the best summation of Hirst’s work - “So little to say….”

Modernism: Designing A New World

Modernism: Designing A New World, 1914-1939, now showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until July 29, 2007, was initially planned and exhibited by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At the time of its premiere in the U.K., I wrote a short article in praise of the exhibition, but now that the show has reached the U.S., I’d like to once again recommend - not just the exhibit - but a reconsideration of modernism.

The modernist vision began to emerge during the late 19th century, with “modernism” serving as a catchphrase for an aesthetic philosophy that encompassed visual art, music, architecture, literature and other artistic disciplines. Traditionalists credit modernism as responsible for the demise of “real art,” while today’s so-called postmodernists dismiss the same movement for being hopelessly old-fashioned. “Modernism didn’t work” is a refrain often heard from postmodernists and their supporters - but that opinion is in every respect, incorrect. For instance - where was the failure in Picasso’s startling 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? What didn’t work in Igor Stravinsky’s 1912 composition, Le Sacre de Printemps? Exactly how were the novels of Franz Kafka unsuccessful?

Associated Press writer Brett Zongker wrote about the show and briefly interviewed Christopher Wilk, the original curator of the exhibit for the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as interviewing Corcoran director and president, Paul Greenhalgh. Wilk and Greenhalgh both made salient points on the relevancy of modernism in today’s context. When speaking of those early modernist firebrands who wanted to “reinvent the world,” Wilk noted that “This was a younger generation who looked to the old men, essentially, who had led them into war, into a slaughter. They wanted to ditch the past and start all over again completely.”

Corcoran director Greenhalgh drew a similar connection between the times lived through by the early modernists, and the “current global environment and the very troubled world that we’re living in.” He went on to say that, “There’s a big debate now internationally about what is art for,” modernists, he declared, attempted to “transform people’s lives for the better. They didn’t think it was just about making nice things and selling them for a lot of money.”

The crucial statements made by Wilk and Greenhalgh point not so much to artists of the past as they do to artists in the present, and the two seem to grasp, more than most contemporary artists, the essential character of modernism and its core motivating force - the desire to reform or revolutionize society. In a Reuters review of Designing A New World, reporter Randall Mikkelsen wrote: “Greenhalgh quoted art critic Robert Hughes as saying contemporary art was only interested in money, and he hoped the Modernism show would be a reminder of a time when a desire for social improvement drove artists. ‘It seems to me that’s the contemporary debate we should all be having now,’ he said.”

While the Designing A New World exhibit displays a wide range of modernist artistic production, from painting and furniture to automobile design and fashion, a chance to see the room-sized model of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1920 Monument to the Third International is by itself worth the price of admission. Considered the ultimate expression of constructivist architecture, the Soviet artist’s monument to international communism was meant to dwarf the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Had it actually been constructed, the tower of iron, glass and steel would have stood over 100 stories tall.

Monument for the Third International

[ Monument for the Third International - Vladimir Tatlin 1919. Digital recreation by Takehiko Nagakura. This image depicts how Tatlin’s monument might have looked if it had been constructed. Nagakura, Associate Professor of Design and Computation at MIT, leads the Unbuilt Monuments project, where unrealized modernist architecture is given visualization. Nagakura and his team use computer software to create buildings never constructed. ]

Curator Christopher Wilk correctly observed that “Modernism is all around us today - this is our world. This is the world we live in.” To my mind, modernism isn’t defunct or irrelevant at all, it has simply arrived at a difficult impasse, and what is currently referred to as “postmodern” is in actuality nothing more than late modernism. A reawakening of the modernist spirit in the 21st century could be called “Remodernism” - but that’s another essay.

Active Resistance to Propaganda

Vivienne Westwood is one of today’s biggest names in the world of fashion design, and her creations have been considered so significant that England’s Victoria & Albert Museum mounted a retrospective of her stunning career in 2004. Westwood began her career as a fashionista in 1971 when she teamed up with Malcolm McLaren (the vainglorious manager of the Sex Pistols), to open a boutique named Let It Rock. The small retail shop specialized in bizarre garments for rock ’n roll misfits, and later renamed Sex, became the hangout for London’s punk scene. The peculiar clothes Westwood created and sold there, slashed T-shirts covered with safety pins, leather fetishware trimmed with metal studs, and tartan bondage outfits with tons of misplaced zippers - came to define the aggressive oddball look of the punk movement.

Photo of Vivienne Westwood in 1977

[ Photograph of Vivienne Westwood in 1977 wearing one of her infamous punk creations - the Destroy T-shirt. Made from muslin cloth and printed in lurid color, the confrontational silk-screened art combined images of an upside down crucifix, a swastika, and a small profile photo of the Queen of England. While misinterpreted by many, the graphic was meant as an angry denunciation of government, religion and fascism. ]

Since those chaotic, nascent days of punk rock, Westwood has moved on to become Britain’s dame of high fashion - although she’s still an iconoclastic rebel at heart. She owns the old shop that once housed Let It Rock, but the space has been transformed into a new boutique called World’s End, where Westwood sells her chic signature line. Currently she has other things on her mind besides runway shows and spring collections, and in an interview with the Guardian she expressed a concern for contemporary art and culture - which she bluntly insists have been “kidnapped by business.”

Westwood condemns today’s so-called cutting edge art for being a “sham” devoid of humanity. To her the latest avant-garde conceptual art in galleries and museums is nothing more than “propaganda” meant to buttress a worn out and empty art world. Culture, Westwood tells us, is withering on the vine, and she asks, “how can people be so easily satisfied? Even people with talent.” (Listen to an mp3 audio clip of the interview.)

To provoke a discussion on contemporary art and its possible future, Westwood has written Active Resistance to Propaganda, a whimsical yet sober art manifesto that she will publicly present at a literary festival this month in England - here are some excerpts:

“Dear Friends, we all love art and some of you claim to be artists. Without judges there is no art. She only exists when we know her. Does she exist? The answer to this question is of vital importance because if Art is alive the world will change. No art, no progress.

Music has not yet been conceptualised by the art mafia, though they are trying. We do not accept a symphony composed on the remaining three keys of a broken piano, accompanied by the random throwing of marbles at a urinal. Yet its equivalent is the latest thing in the visual arts. (Aren’tya OD’d on the latest thing?) Items selected from real life and set up as art do not represent a view of life. The famous urinal is still a urinal whatever you do with it.”